Ashis Ray reports on a controversial debate involving Britain’s Sikh population that could adversely affect UK-India relations

Is a Sikh ethnically different from an Indian? The All Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs (APPGBS) thinks so, while the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) in the UK disagrees.

The APPGBS was virtually defunct until it was revived in July following the election of two practising Sikhs, Tanmanjit Dhesi and Preet Gill, to the House of Commons in the June general election. On 12 September, armed with signatures from more than 100 British MPs, it submitted a letter to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), asking it to recognise Sikhs as a distinct ethnic group.

‘We hope,’ the letter seemed to threaten, ‘you will positively respond to our request on the inclusion of a separate Sikh ethnic tick box in the Census 2021 and the Sikh community is not forced to take legal action, or we are not compelled to make this change when Parliament is asked to approve the Census 2021 questionnaire.’

In a carefully worded statement, the ONS responded: ‘As we said to the All Party Parliamentary Group, no decision has been taken on this issue. We will continue to work with the Sikh community on the best way forward. The National Statistician will not be making his recommendations until early 2018.’

On the face of it, the APPGBS’s argument is founded on a 1976 Law Lords’ ruling which upheld the right of Sikhs to wear symbols of their faith such as the turban. Lord Indarjit Singh, a member of Britain’s House of Lords and a director of the NSO who is sympathetic to the cause of an independent homeland for Sikhs to be carved out of India, was an expert Sikh witness in the hearing. On his organisation’s website, he asserts that the Law Lords had ruled that ‘solely for the purpose of protection under the 1976 Race Relations Act’, Sikhs would enjoy certain ethnic rights, ‘nothing more, nothing less’.

He continues: ‘It is dishonest to say the Law Lords stated Sikhs were an ethnic group per se. The Law Lords who I met at the time were a clever lot, but it was not in their gift to alter geography and nature, or the social environment in which a community has its roots; nor can the much-boasted signatures of 100 MPs make any difference.’ From a theological position, Lord Singh maintained, ‘our (Sikh) Gurus taught that all humans are of the same one race, and that man-made divisions based on caste or race are divisive and false’.

The merits of these rival stances will be considered by the ONS and its conclusions sent to the House of Commons. One hundred MPs in a chamber of 650 would clearly be insufficient to overturn the rejection of a unique ethnic status for Sikhs, and there is also a danger that the number of signatories will dwindle when the lawmakers realise the demand is really the agenda of the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK), a militant group hitherto banned for 15 years under the UK Terrorism Act. In fact, it was only 18 months ago that Prime Minister Theresa May, then home secretary, lifted the proscription on the SFUK.

A press release from Gill, chair of the APPGBS, revealed she was accompanied to her meeting with the ONS by an ‘adviser’ of the SFUK. This person was allegedly Dabinderjit Singh Sidhu, believed to be a staunch Khalistani activist. A spokesman for Gill added that the SFUK provided ‘secretariat services’ to the APPGBS.

Interestingly, Sidhu is an executive at Britain’s National Audit Office and received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) award in 2000. He was recently filmed at a Sikh temple in Leicester advocating the use of force to establish Khalistan, an independent Sikh state to be carved out of India. The SFUK resurfaced under this nomenclature after previously being known as the International Sikh Youth Federation. Historically it has been hostile to the Indian state and engages in tireless efforts to turn Sikhs against India.

Lord Singh asserted: ‘The Sikh Federation is always looking for a campaigning issue. The latest is the inclusion of Sikhs as a distinct ethnic group in the next census. Some Sikhs naively believe that calling ourselves an ethnic group (which we are not) will strengthen the case for Khalistan, an emotionally attractive homeland for Sikhs. But,’ he added, ‘a religious state on the lines of Israel or Pakistan, where Sikhs have more rights than those of other faiths, would be totally against the clear teachings of our Gurus.’ He rightly pointed out that no religious community is identified as an ethnic group in the UK.

(l to r) MPs Tanmanjit Dhesi & Preet Gill; Lord Indarjit Singh
(l to r) MPs Tanmanjit Dhesi & Preet Gill; Lord Indarjit Singh

A census in Britain takes place every 10 years. When asking about people’s ethnic background, the 2011 questionnaire provided choices of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese and ‘Any other Asian background’ under the category of ‘Asian/Asian British’. In short, the ONS did not consider Sikhs to be ethnically different from Indians. However, one can tick the ‘Any other’ box and specify further.

In another section of the form, the question is quite clearly: ‘What is your religion?’ Here, the options are ‘No religion’, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and ‘Any other religion’. In effect, the ONS recognises Sikhism as a distinct religion, but not Sikhs as a separate ethnic group.

An APPGBS press release claimed 88,000 Sikhs did not declare themselves to be ethnically Indians in the 2011 Census. The ONS countered this by revealing that 425,000 said their religion was Sikhism. In other words, an estimated 80 per cent of Sikhs in the UK did not state their ethnicity was Sikh.

New Delhi is unlikely to be amused if the APPGBS demand is granted; such an outcome has the potential to impact on bilateral relations between India and Britain. Given the problems that could ensue if Sikhs are de-linked from Indians, the ruling Conservative party is unlikely to endorse such a move. On the other hand, the opposition Labour party, which will want to retain its Sikh voters, could be persuaded otherwise, particularly under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who is seen to be ambivalent on the Khalistan issue.

Ashis Ray is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent. He is also president of the Indian Journalists’ Association in Europe

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